"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." — Winston Churchill
Made of concrete, steel, brick and mortar, buildings should not stir feelings of love, hate and longing. They shouldn't, but they do.
"Above all, architecture speaks," said Decatur architect Fred Underwood. "Secondly, architecture makes you feel. Every place we go, inside, outside, we are totally affected by it. It stirs something inside of us."
Structures, whether functional or not, whether built for travel, beauty or the environment, are an integral part of cities and towns. Who doesn't hear New York City and visualize William Lamb's Empire State Building, or San Francisco and think of Irving Morrow's Golden Gate Bridge.
In 1950, Underwood unknowingly entered this world of creation and imagination.
The Russellville native, who built a cabin as a boy and whose favorite activity in art class was building the easel, never intended to become an architect. Underwood thought the classes at Auburn University would prepare him for a career in construction, not design.
But in 1955, five years after enrolling, Underwood graduated with a degree in architecture.
"I got into this by accident, but I stayed in it because I loved it," Underwood said. "I enjoy the challenge of the design. I enjoy putting it all together. I enjoy being on site when contractors pour the concrete. I enjoy climbing on the roof. I enjoy it all."
During the past 58 years in the business, the owner of Underwood Associates in Decatur witnessed the introduction of modern design and the expanding impact of technology.
"Nothing is done by hand anymore. With these computer programs, as you put in the design specifics, the computer draws it in three dimension. I feel like, with that, we are losing some aesthetic design and uniqueness," Underwood said.
Computer programs also allow architects, contractors and owners to digitally tour and hear the not-yet-built buildings. One of the latest programs, Sound Lab by Arup, uses speakers to create the acoustic properties of a digital model allowing designers to change properties of the room that will affect the sound.
As technology continues to push society forward, architectural design has to respond.
"We're changing. Look at schools, students can take classes over the internet. Teachers can teach and not have to be in the same room," Underwood said. "Our buildings should help lead us into this imaginary world."
Architects, however, can not ignore the real world and the popular themes of eco-friendly and sustainable design.
"Alabama tends to be somewhat traditionally minded in its residential architecture. However, we are seeing more interest in modern styles and more energy efficient or green building methods," said Scott Schoel, owner of Schoel Architecture.
Along with creating structures that stretch the imagination — think the Kansas City Public Library, the Lotus Temple in India and the "bird's nest" National Stadium in Beijing — architects serve as communicators.
"Architects have to hear what the owner wants and communicate what he assumed that vision was in a graphic form. Then he has to communicate with the contractors," said Underwood, whose company designed Cedar Ridge Middle School, Parkview Baptist Church, the addition to First United Methodist in Decatur and Renasant Bank on Danville Road Southwest.
The addition at First United Methodist challenged Underwood. The architecture firm had to create a building with similar qualities to the existing sanctuary while differentiating it from First Baptist.
"We thought about what was iconic about First Methodist and it is the steeple. We tried a steeple and that did not work. We don't like doing lighted signs. So we did the methodist symbol of a cross and flame. The flame was done by a brick sculpture in Lauderdale County and the cross is in limestone. Architecture speaks," Underwood said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 113,700 people worked as architects in the United States in 2010. By 2020, the department expects the work force to grow by 27,900.
In Decatur, the impact of the economy lingers, Underwood and Schoel said. Fewer funds means fewer projects means fewer jobs.
"It is harder now than ever to find a job in this profession. We are still in a recession and most firms are running with smaller staffs and higher production levels made possible by technology," Schoel said. "Be committed, be prepared to work hard long hours and learn to draw what you see, not what you think."
Catherine Godbey can be reached at 256-340-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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